Modern minds, primitive arts

The Crafts in Britain in the 20th Century

July 9, 1999

Cunningly stated in the last sentence of this substantial research project is its goal. "What I hope this book demonstrates is that the complexities and ironies that lie behind the continuation of craft practice necessarily belong to any inquiry into the artistic and intellectual history of the 20th century."

But what it does not do is deal with why people today continue practising the crafts professionally. With this in mind, I want to look at the final chapter first, in the belief that this issue could usefully have been broached from the start. Near the book's end, the author looks at the critical response to an important exhibition of craft, "The Maker's Eye", and in so doing takes Sunday Telegraph critic John McEwen to task for expressing the view that the "oldest and plainest objects still look the best" and then for claiming that craftspeople "are at their most pretentious when their work seeks to identify with painting and sculpture" and that painters and sculptors seemed "at their most innocent and exuberant when dabbling in the crafts". I am not certain that I agree totally with McEwen, but I am sure that his points are where the debate starts, not ends.

Published to coincide with the exhibition "British Crafts 1940-1960", curated by the author and recently on show at the Sainsbury Centre, The Crafts in Britain in the 20th Century by Tanya Harrod slices the period she deals with into three: 1916-39, 1945-69 and 1970-90. Part one deals with the legacy of William Morris; it tells the story of a passionate and well-meaning middle-class collection of individuals who set out to celebrate the aesthetic of the handmade.

The visual surprise here is an illustration of an Omega Workshop interior painted in 1916-17 by Nina Hamnett. The author pins down the aims of the image very clearly, "to keep the spontaneous freshness of primitive or peasant work while expressing the feelings of modern man", but what she possibly had not anticipated was the link this image would make with the recent paintings of David Hockney. The resemblance is uncanny, and clearly Hockney's concerns as a fine artist dovetail neatly with the concerns of the cutting edge of the crafts during 1916-39. The disappointing revelation is that the silversmithing, jewellery, stained glass and furniture design of this period appear to have been locked into the past, standing in stark contrast to pottery, textiles and lettering, which were engaged in a struggle to escape the insular.

This part of the book also explores the divide between craft and design, and takes us on a rural ride to an Eric Gill church in Norfolk and the Ernst Grimson Memorial Library at Bedales, and then up the Bakerloo line with Enid Marx. This journey left me with the impression that the crafts were at their best when addressing modernism and at their weakest when looking backwards. In this portion of the book, Harrod touches on some enjoyably touchy subjects: spontaneity, creativity, National Socialism in Germany, the crafts as a panacea for the disabled and the exploitation of workers, a concept I will put in focus by quoting Bernard Leach: "Choose untrained labour, likely boys learn the jobs quickly."

The second part of the book, which looks at the social and political history of 1945-69, starts with a short sentence: "The crafts had a good war." I found the writing here rather technical, and for someone who has spent the past 20 years in art schools, a bit too much like being at work. However, this section is packed full of useful dates and names. Interestingly, the accompanying photographs tend to be more black-and-white, more informational - in short, there are fewer beautiful objects in evidence. As we progress into the 1950s, names such as Henry Hammond and Michael Casson begin to drop out of the text and are replaced by the names of artists who gradually make their presence felt: Alan Davie, Eduardo Paolozzi, Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton. With them comes basic design and the Bauhaus and their students who turn out to be Terence Conran and David Hicks. Before we know it, Robin Darwin, the rector of the Royal College of Art, has declared that there is no place for the potter Michael Cardew "in the new regime".

Post-war, we are confronted with a volume of historical fact, which if you are a student or historian you will find scholarly and well ordered, but if you love the crafts you will find in it little to lift your heart. What becomes clear is that between 1945 and 1969, the crafts were taken over by bureaucrats, artists and designers. This said, in Britain Hans Coper, Lucie Rie and Michael Casson were flying a ceramic flag while lettering was in the safe hands of Edward Wright and David Kindersley. Metalwork and furniture and glass, however, remained down on their uppers. Pictures, not the text, present one notable exception, John Hutton. His glass in Coventry Cathedral appears imaginative and risky -Ja good example of an artist wrestling with craft and architecture while conceptually exploring the language of expressionism, a large but challenging agenda. If this chapter has an overall mood it is one of Big Brother taking over.

By the end of this part of the book, I was seriously questioning if the crafts had had such a "good war" and thinking that perhaps, like many of the apparently healthy returning troops, the damage that war had done to them was only to become evident some time later.

The third and final part of the book is titled "Sheer enjoyment" and covers the 1970s and 1980s, the conservative years. The images in this chapter start with a moody Phil Sayers black-and-white photograph of Lord Eccles as connoisseur doing the tea ceremony thing with one of the pots he owns. We then move through a set of daft one-liners: wooden furniture pretending to be metal, metal cups that look like props for a Dungeons and Dragons set, barbed-wire necklaces, jugs that are unwrapping and wonky glass chairs that end us up at Crooked Pightle House, the home of "new classicist" architect Robert Adam. The finale, as it were, is a full-colour image of ex-prime minister Margaret Thatcher in her "top office" surrounded by craft and design - an essay on the eclectic clash.

This book deals with history, raises some interesting issues, but does not rock the boat too much. But perhaps that is the nature of the crafts. It is a big book that deserves to go into every specialist library. How big the readership is beyond that I do not know, but I suspect that historians of intellectual and cultural history and micro-economists also will find it interesting.

Stephen Farthing is master of drawing, University of Oxford.

The Crafts in Britain in the 20th Century

Author - Tanya Harrod
ISBN - 0 300 07780 7
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 496

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